Topic: Government and Politics

Porkers Get Prime Seats

This morning I attended President Bush’s speech on the release of the midsession budget review at the White House.  Bush first tied his tax cuts to the strong economic growth the nation is experiencing, and he was on solid ground. He then delivered some fine rhetoric about restraining spending and cutting special interest pork.  Perhaps his new budget and Treasury chiefs–Rob Portman and Henry Paulson–can actually get him to follow through on those frequently made promises.  But I would be more convinced if the White House hadn’t invited two of the Senate’s biggest pork barrelers–Ted Stevens and Conrad Burns–to sit right in the front row for the speech!  

Policy Dreams vs. Government Realities

When I came to Washington in 1990, central planning (“industrial policy”) was all the rage. As the 1990s progressed, the clamor for industrial policy faded, partly because the Japanese and German economies stagnated while the US economy soared.

But in my inbox this morning came news of a new study from the Progressive Policy Institute claiming that “America needs a national comprehensive strategy in order to maintain its preeminence within the world economy.”

Which government would implement this “national comprehensive stategy” I wonder? Surely not the same one that delivers non-stop pork barrel spending, management failure, and corruption year after year, decade after decade.

Rick Santorum: Left, Right, and Wrong

The New York Times reports that Sen. Rick Santorum…

…distributed a brochure this week as he worked a sweltering round of town hall meetings and Fourth of July parades: “Fifty Things You May Not Know About Rick Santorum.” It is filled with what he called meat and potatoes, like his work to expand colon cancer screenings for Medicare beneficiaries (No. 3), or to secure money for “America’s first ever coal to ultra-clean fuel plant” (No. 2)….

He said he wanted Pennsylvanians to think of him as a political heir to Alfonse M. D’Amato of New York, who was known as Senator Pothole for being acutely attuned to constituent needs.

So … the third-ranking Republican leader in the Senate wants to be known as a porker, an earmarker, and Senator Pothole.

Santorum had already dismissed limited government in theory. He told NPR last year:

One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. You know, the left has gone so far left and the right in some respects has gone so far right that they touch each other. They come around in the circle. This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

He declared himself against individualism, against libertarianism, against “this whole idea of personal autonomy, … this idea that people should be left alone.” Now he’s also against the conservative idea that taxpayers matter, that the federal government has a limited role.

No wonder Jonathan Rauch wrote last year that, “America’s Anti-Reagan Isn’t Hillary Clinton. It’s Rick Santorum.” Rauch noted:

In his book he comments, seemingly with a shrug, “Some will reject what I have to say as a kind of ‘Big Government’ conservatism.”

They sure will. A list of the government interventions that Santorum endorses includes national service, promotion of prison ministries, “individual development accounts,” publicly financed trust funds for children, community-investment incentives, strengthened obscenity enforcement, covenant marriage, assorted tax breaks, economic literacy programs in “every school in America” (his italics), and more. Lots more.

Rauch concluded,

With It Takes a Family, Rick Santorum has served notice. The bold new challenge to the Goldwater-Reagan tradition in American politics comes not from the Left, but from the Right.

At least Santorum is right about one thing: sometimes the left and the right meet in the center. In this case the big-spending, intrusive, mommy-AND-daddy-state center. But he’s wrong that we’ve never had a firmly individualist society where people are “left alone, able to do whatever they want to do.”

It’s called America.

UK National ID in Collapse - U.S. National ID to Follow?

The Sunday Times (U.K.) reports that “Tony Blair’s flagship identity cards scheme is set to fail and may not be introduced for a generation.” The Times cites leaked e-mails reflecting senior officials’ belief that the plan to subject the U.K. population to the regimentation of a national ID system is falling apart. Even a backup, scaled-down national ID card isn’t “remotely feasible,” according to the e-mails cited by the report. Ministers who are pressing ahead with the plan are “ignoring reality.”

Similar e-mails may well be floating around the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which will be issuing regulations to flesh out the REAL ID Act this summer this fall after November 7th. (No bureaucrat with an ounce of political acumen would drop a $9-billion-dollar unfunded surveillance-mandate before the mid-term election.)

This is not bad news. A national ID system is useful for controlling a law-abiding population, but not useful for securing against law-breakers, particularly committed threats like terrorists - unless it is part of a total surveillance system.

The failure to implement a national ID system in the U.S. would represent little loss to the nation in terms of security, and a substantial gain in terms of preserved freedom and autonomy. All this is discussed in my new book, Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.

Unlike the U.K., where a national ID is apparently a project identified with Tony Blair, the Bush Administration does not have to look for a face-saving alternative. The U.S. national ID was not a Bush Administration project, but something it accepted in a political bargain. The Administration can now (rightly) declare it impossible to implement and inconsistent with American values, then work with Congress to repeal the REAL ID Act.

Ron Paul in the Post

The Washington Post profiles libertarian congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.) – in its Sunday Style section, which is sort of a throwaway placement.

It’s one of those 1970s-style laundry list stories:

The amiable Texas congressman would do away with the CIA and the Federal Reserve. He’d reinstate the gold standard. He’d get rid of the Department of Education.

Rather than really try to present the argument for individual rights and limited constitutional government, drawing on public choice economics and the failures of government programs, the reporter just lists one out-of-the-mainstream position after another. Still, she does make it clear that he’s philosophically principled and not your typical Bush-supporting JFK-lookalike 21st-century congressman.

Here’s an interesting point about Ron Paul that I haven’t seen anyone make: As far as I know, Ron Paul is the only member of Congress who has been elected three times as a non-incumbent. Two of those times he beat an incumbent.

He first won a special election in 1976, then lost that fall. Two years later he came back and defeated incumbent Bob Gammage. After three terms he ran for the Senate, losing the Republican nomination to Phil Gramm. The really bad news was that he was replaced by Tom DeLay. In 1988 Paul was the Libertarian Party nominee for president. Then in 1996, 20 years after his first election and 12 years after he had last won election to the House, he ran again in a differently configured district. He had to beat Democrat-turned-Republican incumbent Greg Laughlin in the primary – against the opposition of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Rifle Association, former attorney general Ed Meese, Senators Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Gov. George W. Bush.

Given that kind of firepower and the incumbent reelection rate of about 99 percent these days, Ron Paul has a remarkable political record. He must be doing something right back in Texas.

Better than Investing

Former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham had a bribe menu for lobbyists who wanted government contracts. Amazingly, it wasn’t just an understanding between friends, or a general concept. He actually wrote it down on his congressional stationery. As Brian Ross reported for ABC News:

The card shows an escalating scale for bribes, starting at $140,000 and a luxury yacht for a $16 million Defense Department contract. Each additional $1 million in contract value required a $50,000 bribe.

The rate dropped to $25,000 per additional million once the contract went above $20 million.

I love the volume discount. And I especially love the fact that Cunningham didn’t think his customers could handle the math involved in “it’s $50,000 for each million.” Instead, he wrote down each increment with “50” next to it. (See the card here.)

Now a Washington Post story ties lobbying fees to specific earmarks. Lobbying fees and earmarks are legal, of course, so this is not an illegal bribe menu. But I was struck by the cost-benefit ratio:

For example, the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, affiliated with the Florida University system, received an earmark valued at $2.3 million to conduct research for the Navy after paying Copeland Lowery $60,000 last year, according to House records and a spokeswoman for the institute.

The Rochester Institute of Technology received six earmarks valued at $8.9 million after paying Copeland Lowery $440,000 from 2002 to 2005.

The lobbying prices seem higher than Cunningham’s, but of course there was more overhead involved. And I’m no businessman, but I’m betting that it’s pretty hard to turn $440,000 into $8.9 million in manufacturing or other normal economic activity.

So you can see why, as long as Washington has far too much money to hand out, people will spend money to get a piece of it.

Rent-Seeking 101

Mike Munger, chair of Duke University’s political science department and a friend of Cato, has a great essay on the waste of political “rent-seeking,” the attempt to get taxpayer money channeled through government to your favored interest (whether hungry children, municipal governments, corporations, or private individuals).

Here’s an excerpt:

In my classes, I ask students to imagine an experiment that I call a Tullock lottery, after one of the inventors of the concept of rent-seeking, Gordon Tullock.

The lottery works as follows: I offer to auction off $100 to the student who bids the most. The catch is that each bidder must put the bid money in an envelope, and I keep all of the bid money no matter who wins.

So if you put $30 in an envelope and somebody else bids $31, you lose both the prize and the bid. When I run that game with students I can sometimes make $50 or more, even after paying off the prize. In politics, the secret to making money is to announce you are going to give money away.

Take a walk along K Street in Washington, DC. It is lined with tall buildings, full of fine offices and peopled by men and women with excellent educations and a real sense of ambition, a desire to make lots of money and achieve great things. What are those buildings, those people? They are nothing more than bids in the political version of a Tullock lottery. The cost of maintaining a D.C. office with a staff and lights and lobbying professionals is the offer to politicians. If someone else bids more and the firm doesn’t get that tax provision or defense bid or road system contract, it doesn’t get its bid back. The money is gone. It is thrown into the maw of bad political competition.

Who benefits from that system? Is it the contractors, all those companies and organizations with offices on K Street? Not really. Playing a rent-seeking game like that means those firms spend just about all they expect to win. It is true that some firms get large contracts and big checks, but all the players would be better off overall if they could avoid playing the game to begin with.

This is a large part of why I think Jonathan Chait is daffy for saying that Warren Buffett should dump some large fraction of his billions on “slick political operatives” on K Street. The competition for political rents is zero- and often negative-sum. The rent-seeking game has features of both a commons tragedy and an arms race — neither being a good model for a prosperous and peaceful society. But that’s what big-government types, left and right, are asking for when they insist on keeping government money and power on the table.

Chait is no doubt right that if his political tribe had more billionaire patrons, they could win more “auctions.” Unless the other tribe has even more motivated billionaire patrons, that is. He seems not to grasp that this a mug’s game — a low-grade civil war — flatly inconsistent with the general welfare. It’s a huge waste of financial and human resources. And once the game gets started, you often get sucked in, whether or not you’d like to, just to survive. Munger:

My students ask why anyone would play this sort of game. The answer is that the rules of our political system have created that destructive kind of political competition. When so much government money is available to the highest bidder, playing that lottery begins to look very enticing. The current Congress has, to say the least, failed to stem the rising tide of spending on domestic pork-barrel projects. Political competition run amok has increased spending nearly across the board. And sometimes, you have to bid just to keep from having money taken away from you through regulation.

I think once you really grasp the logic behind the tremendous loss of welfare through destructive political competition for rents, it becomes difficult to defend big, relatively unlimited government. Chait notoriously claimed that limited-government, market liberal types (i.e., Cato types) are evidence-immune ideologues, while statist liberals like him are just plain old empiricists, following the evidence where it leads. Well, Jon Chait, open-minded empiricist, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Mike Munger.